Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher (Joan of Arc at the Stake) is an oratorio composed by Arthur Honegger in the 1930s, to a libretto by Paul Claudel. Until a few weeks ago I’d never heard of it, but a recent recording of the piece piqued my curiosity. By a happy coincidence, my local library had not only the recent recording but also a copy of the score, so I was able to sit down last week and “read” the piece as I listened. I’m here to report that it’s pretty terrific.
The action of the oratorio takes place while Joan is tied to the stake and awaits the flames, during which interval we get flashbacks to her trial and sentencing. There is a cheekily surreal element in the libretto, with Joan’s judge depicted as a pig (“My name is Porcus / I am a porker”), her interrogators as sheep, and the court scribe as a donkey (“Loads of hay for you today!”). There is an interlude in which the witnesses against her play a peculiar game of cards (the import of which I did not understand). Joan herself hears the beautiful voices of St Catherine and St Margaret, comforting her and offering hope, and, at the work’s climax, it is the Blessed Virgin who sings to her.
This important moment, at which the flame begins to kindle beneath her feet, is worth looking at more closely. The choir, as well as the solo voices of Sts Catherine and Margaret, have been building to a crescendo of cries (“Daughter of God!”) and exhortations (“Now there is faith that is triumphant!”, “Now there is joy that is triumphant!”). Joan herself cries out, “And there is God who is triumphant!”, and, as the crescendo dies away to piano, Joan sings a little ditty that I’ll give in English translation:
A little cake carefully made
A little egg Henny Penny laid
A little tear for Joan!
A little prayer for Joan!
A little thought for Joan!
They’re not to fry or give away
But with them buy a candle sweet
To shed a ray at Mary’s feet.
‘Tis I shall be the candle sweet.
To which the Blessed Virgin responds with a beautiful vocal line: “I take this holy flame in gladness”, and then, over the space of about 10 minutes, the piece builds again toward a radiant finale. It’s a lovely sequence altogether, and was for me the heart of the piece.
Honegger is one of those composers whose work is usually said to be workmanlike and competent, but rarely inspired. He himself agreed with this assessment, I believe, and rather took pride in his ability to write to order. But personally I found the writing here quite good, with plenty of melodies and many interesting touches in the orchestration. The music is thoroughly tonal.
One caveat is that a half-dozen of the parts, including Joan’s, are spoken rather than sung. For me this would prevent my putting the piece on “just to listen to it”; I would have to sit down specifically to focus on it (which is what I should be doing anyway, but of course it’s hard to find the time).
Here are a couple of short excerpts featuring the same forces as made the recording I listened to; Marion Cotillard plays Joan. In this first clip Joan expresses her fear and distress at her approaching death; there are English subtitles:
And in this excerpt we hear the final 2 minutes of the piece:
In the end, I was very pleasantly surprised by the excellence of Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher. I would even go so far as to say that it deserves consideration in a discussion of great Catholic art of the twentieth century. It’s not a supreme achievement on the level of (to cite another musical hagiography) Messiaen’s opera Saint-François d’Assise, but it is devout without being saccharine, theologically serious without losing its wit, and made with irreproachable competence. I recommend it warmly.
I have also discovered that a film version of this oratorio exists, made in the 1950s by Roberto Rossellini with Ingrid Bergman in the role of Joan. I’d very much like to see it.